At the unveiling of a statue of her husband in Geneva in November 2021, Stella Moris says: I’m here to remind you that Julian isn’t a name, he isn’t a symbol, he’s a man and he’s suffering.
The Julian in question is Assange, and that simple statement is what Ithaka, Ben Lawrence’s superb two-part documentary, is all about.
The Australian founder of Wikileaks has been a wanted man since 2010, when US Army intelligence analyst Chelsea (then Bradley) Manning leaked documents that were then published in conjunction with The Guardian, The New York Times and Der Spiegel revealing war crimes carried out by the US in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Criminal investigations – for computer crimes, for alleged sexual assault, for espionage – came in quick order. Assange took refuge in the Ecuadorean Embassy in London in June 2012, but was kicked out in April 2019, allowing the US government to seek his extradition. If successful, and if he’s found guilty, Assange faces up to 175 years in prison.
That’s where Lawrence enters the fray, at the urging of Gabriel Shipton, Julian’s half-brother. Assange remains almost entirely off camera, reduced to disembodied snippets of voice on phone calls from prison, so the focus shifts to the two people doing most to press his case: wife Moris and father John Shipton.
The latter is an especially fascinating character, in no small part because – despite his protestations to the contrary – the apple clearly didn’t fall far from the tree.
When Julian is diagnosed as having autism, Lawrence asks Shipton for his thoughts, and he reflects upon his own difficulties as a young man in connecting with people. You might say one was Aspergic, and through suffering learnt technique, he says. Then I began to teach myself anew what are these curious creatures we call human beings. Also, I had a burning desire to give love.
He’s soft-spoken, occasionally prickly, given to frustration at people’s insistence on questions like how do you feel, and unerringly direct. When a journalist from NBC asks if he thinks Julian was naive at times, he replies, Expecting states to obey their own laws is hardly naive.
John was out of his son’s life from the time he was three until his mid-20s, and there’s a sense that while he believes utterly in the principle at stake he’s also making amends. But it comes at an enormous cost: at 76, he has a five-year-old daughter back in Australia, and the year he’s spent in London fighting for his boy is time he will never get back with his girl.
Lawyer Moris, meanwhile, has two kids of her own with Assange. They’ve had fleeting moments together in the embassy, but the statue unveiling, she says through tears, is the first time she’s seen him in three dimensions since a judge ruled against his extradition 10 months earlier.
The basis of that verdict wasn’t that the US had no grounds to pursue Assange for receiving and publishing information, the bedrock of journalism (it’s notable that he alone is facing espionage charges, not any of the mastheads who co-published). It was that his mental health was so fragile that he would likely end up dead at his own hand if extradition were ordered.
Assange remains in prison, the US appealing the verdict, and the central issue remains live: both a human being and press freedoms are under assault. Whatever mixed feelings people have about Assange shouldn’t obscure that fact.
Nils Melzer, UN special rapporteur on torture, puts it perfectly when he admits that when Assange’s team reached out to him his first instinct was to ignore them. I think all of us had [such prejudices] at some point, he says, because this is the public narrative that has been spread in the media for 10 years, and no one has been able to see why this has been done.
Assange never wanted it to be him in the spotlight, Melzer claims. It was about the States and their war crimes and their corruption. That’s what he wanted to put the spotlight on, and he did, and that’s what made them angry. And they put the spotlight on him.
In its own small way, Lawrence’s film – with its stirring soundtrack by Brian Eno, no less – is an attempt to turn that light back where it belongs. Here’s hoping it’s not too late.
Ithaka is on ABC TV on June 7 and 14 at 8. 30pm.
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